Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Gothard Scandal: Toxic Attitudes Are Part the Problem

Religion News Service reports that Bill Gothard of the Institute in Basic Life Principles has been placed on administrative leave after female employees accused him of sexual harassment. Gothard's leave comes after Recovering Grace posted stories from former IBLP staff accusing Gothard of sexual misconduct and intrusion into their romantic lives.

Gothard's teachings have attracted thousands of Christian homeschoolers and Quiverfull families, including the Duggars, Religion News Service states. Survivors of Gothard's ministry, such as Micah Murray and Jeri Lofland, have called Gothard's empire a "cult".

The accusations against Gothard must be taken seriously and investigated. The women coming forward must be listened to and offered safe spaces to speak. In the meantime, the scandal is an opportunity for public conversations on sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, the dangers of a "cult of personality", and institutional accountability. Unfortunately, some voices from the Christian Right have squandered this opportunity, reducing the Gothard scandal to a matter of "sin" or alleged persecution rather than a serious situation.

First, Michael Farris, chancellor of Patrick Henry College and founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), posted a statement on Facebook regarding misconduct by Christian leaders. (Hat tip to Homeschoolers Anonymous.)
"I continue to hear distressing news about the moral conduct of Christian leaders and speakers some of whom were/are popular in the homeschooling movement. Of course, anyone can sin–including me. But I cannot be so gracious about protracted patterns of sin that reveal a deep hypocrisy.

From my own observation there is a central problem that often accompanies these kinds of failures. All leaders have to have a certain amount of ego strength to be able to withstand the slings and arrows of the naysayers who attack anyone who attempts to lead. But, that basic strength can get out of control. Consider it a danger sign when the leader never shares the spotlight with other leaders in the organization. Consider it another danger sign when the leader does not have anyone in his organization with both the power and the character to tell him “no” at times."
In my opinion, Farris' comment neglected the larger issues at hand. For instance, if the accusations are true, how was Gothard able to abuse his station with impunity for so long, and what role did his Christian Patriarchy ideology play in rendering his victims vulnerable? What can institutions do to protect staff from sexual victimization? Instead of addressing these issues, Farris chose instead to talk about sin, "ego strength", and sharing spotlight.

It's vital that we recognize sexual abuse is calculated, criminal, and morally unacceptable, rather than just "sin" or a misuse of "ego strength". R.L. Stollar at Homeschoolers Anonymous was disgusted with Farris' language, arguing that sexual abuse goes far beyond "sin" and "hypocrisy".

"Taking advantage of and molesting children and young adult women isn’t simply “sin” or “hypocrisy” which “anyone” can fall into. Taking advantage of and molesting children and young adult women is criminal behavior. It is sexual abuse, plain and simply. This isn’t a question of people’s fallibility; it isn’t a question of “ego strength,” unless you somehow believe leaders are innately abusers.

And it sure as hell isn’t a question of “basic strengths.” Sexual abuse isn’t a “basic strength” that “can get out of control.” It’s not something that comes from “too much of a good thing.” Michael Farris’s attempts to spin these situations away from criminal activity and into the realm of “we’ve all fallen short” is self-serving, inexcusable, and horrifying. It is yet another example that he is in denial about abuse within the movement he himself helped to build."
Second, Kevin Swanson responded to the accusations against Gothard with sarcasm and ad hominem attacks. In a Generations with Vision radio show entitled "Why the Old Fundamentalism Is Cracking", Swanson began his show with condemnation of the "Neronic agenda", in which "aberrant sexuality is being celebrated and encouraged and funded by your public dollars". He talked at length about how "God's law" is a superior moral path to the alleged freewheeling morality of the modern age. This segued into his discussion of the Gothard scandal, which was less about Gothard's reported misconduct and more about mocking those who brought the misconduct claims to light.

"Patheos and Spiritual Sounding Board are dancing on the grave of Bill Gothard and the whole ATI thing right now," Swanson claimed, demonizing the websites as degenerate blogs eager to convert Christians to a heathen agenda. He provided no evidence for his wild claims against either website. At the 9:31 mark, he had this to say.

"Friends, right now Patheos and Spiritual Sounding Board are the apostasizing websites working hard to drive another 10% out of the organized, historical, biblical churches to a pro-homosexual, pro-socialist, pro-evolution pro-atheist agenda. They're just so excited ... They're sort of like the proselytes of the left."
At the 10:20 mark, Swanson warned listeners about believing what they read on websites, arguing that witnesses in a civil or church court are necessary to corroborate abuse claims.
"As Christians we ought to be very careful when we see these things on public websites, news sites presenting this information. We ought to demand two or three witnesses in a proper church court or a proper civil court."
At the 10:37 mark, Swanson accused Patheos and Spiritual Sounding Board of being unconcerned about corroborating claims. He accused the two websites of gleefully seeking to tear down a Christian leader so that they can celebrate depravity.
"But Patheos and [Spiritual] Sounding Board doesn't really care that much about it. They just get very excited about the fact that there may be some problem, some compromise in the life of a spiritual leader, and if they can find that, they can find the compromise, the moral compromise in the life of a leader, they get very excited because now they know that they can toss out everything that guy ever said about God, Jesus, honoring mothers and fathers, etc. etc. If that be the case, they can throw all that out and they can do whatever they want, and how fun that can be! They don't have to worry about this adultery thing anymore, don't have to worry about homosexuality, don't have to worry about incest, don't have to worry about pedophilia, we can just celebrate! We're free from anything that this Christian leader every said because there may be some moral compromise in his life."

I'm used to bombastic words and ad hominem attacks from Swanson, but these comments were twisted and offensive, even for him. Swanson refused to consider the possibility that the accusations against Gothard could have substance, or that websites bringing accusations to light might have noble motives for doing so. By lobbing baseless insults at Patheos and Spiritual Sounding Board, Swanson deflected from the sexual abuse issue.

Swanson's other recent comments about abuse, while less vitriolic, still reflected his skewed priorities. In the February 19th edition of Generations with Vision, Swanson acknowledged the existence of sexual abuse in churches, but seemed more concerned about how abuse damages churches and encourages apostasy. What about how abuse harms victims? What about how abuse is indicative of deeper institutional problems? I thought.

Swanson's response to the Gothard scandal is an all-too-common knee jerk reaction. When a popular leader is accused of wrongdoing, misguided supporters will deflect attention from the accusations and demonize the accusers. Rather that confront the accusations and what they might suggest about an idol, some prefer to mock and silence those who allege abuse. If accusations grow too numerous to ignore, some might downplay abusive acts as mere sins or indiscretions. The outward appearance of a church and the illusion of a happy ministry become more important than truth and accountability.

These kinds of attitudes are the problem. 

When toxic attitudes like these are pervasive in a community or an institution, it becomes very difficult to tackle institutional problems like abuse. Honest conversations and abuse prevention efforts are hampered when such attitudes prevent people from acknowledging abuse in the first place. Victims are humiliated or cowed into silence, while perpetrators commit crimes with impunity.

It's time to recognize sexual abuse in churches as a grave crime, one that perpetrators inflict consciously and willfully. It's time to recognize that justice and truth are more important than preserving a ministry's reputation. It's time to recognize how abuse thrives in environments tainted by patriarchy, authoritarianism, and a lack of accountability. It's time to stop silencing victims. It's time to stop deflecting attention from accusations and start taking them seriously.

In short, toxic attitudes about abuse have to go.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Spiritual Sounding Board: Kevin Swanson Defends Bill Gothard’s Sexual Harassment Charges While Publicly Trash Talks Blogs  

Chicago Now: Bill Gothard, sexual predator in Oak Brook, still goes uninvestigated by police

Love, Joy, Feminism: Bill Gothard, Sexual Predator

Ramblings of Sheldon: Exposing the IFB: Pastor Bill Gothard and Advanced Training Institute


  1. I still crack up everyone time he says "patheos." There are probably 100 writers on patheos, and they disagree with each other.

    1. Lana -- I couldn't believe it. Has he even visited Patheos? They have bloggers of every religion from across the political spectrum, so they're hardly a unified front.

  2. I think you pointed out the problem perfectly that Swanson only used deflection. He is correct in saying make sure information is corroborated but at least address the issue at hand and don't attack atheists. Every time he opens his mouth idiocy comes out. Sigh....

    1. Christian -- He really does live in his own little world.

  3. Your posts are giving us an ever-clearer picture of the kind of world these fundies want. It's a world where consensual but unorthodox sexual relationships would be banned and persecuted, while sexual abuse by religious authority figures would be kept hidden and the victims silenced.

    1. Infidel -- It's a sickening double standard. This kind of moral hypocrisy does real harm.


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